The underwater ghost town

Tennessee is a beautiful state with amazing state parks. Parks that range from high mountain peaks to the Mississippi delta, from battle fields to Native American burial grounds, from gorgeous blue lakes to diverse river systems. There’s just so much beauty and variety. So, I’ve made it a goal of mine to visit every state park in Tennessee in 2018. Below is my story of my adventure at one park.

I stood high on a hill overlooking a vast expanse of water far below me. The lake, glistening blue in the late afternoon sun, was empty save one man fishing from a boat in a shallow cove. All was quiet and tranquil; a picture-perfect spring day at the lake. But this would have been a much different view some 80 years ago, before everything changed.

The drive north to Big Ridge State Park is a pretty one along twisting and turning along back country roads. Small towns and communities that go back generations dot the hills. Loyston was one such town. It was settled in the early 19th century around a foundry and soon became a trading center for local farmers. By the early 1930s, Loyston had 70 residents, a post office and school, churches, and a number of small businesses. A bustling community trying to eek out livings in the Tennessee hills. Life was difficult, but it was home.

Then the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) decided to build a dam for flood control. This dam, the Norris Dam, would create Norris Lake. The town of Loyston lay directly in the path of the newly created lake. So, by 1936, the dam was complete and the residents of Loyston were scattered across East Tennessee, never able to return home again. Loyston was gone forever, submerged deep under the waters of Norris Lake in a mile wide section now known as the Loyston Sea. The same section of water that I now looked down upon.

Big Ridge State Park was created after the land was flooded to create Norris Lake. The park is located in the Appalachian Ridge and Valley range and consists of three ridges that rise sharply from the lake and drop back down into deep fertile valleys cut through by gurgling streams. The park is beautiful and offers so much to do: hiking, camping, swimming, fishing, boating, and picnicking, to name a few activities. You can also rent a cabin for the night and check out the original work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

I decided to hike. With trail names like Ghost House Loop and Dark Hollow Trail, how could I not explore the area on foot? There’s a deep history here and I was excited to see what I could find.

I entered the forest on Lake Trail. Just a couple yards in I came upon a downed tree blocking the path. As I climbed up and over the tree, last seasons leaves, still clinging to branches, rattled violently in a soft breeze while a woodpecker high above me laughed and laughed. I paused, was the forest welcoming me or warning me of what lay ahead? I couldn’t, or perhaps didn’t want to, know the answer.

Except for that fisherman in the boat, I saw no one else on my hike. The trail hugged the side of the ridge as it climbed up to the Loyston Sea view and then down to the water where it crossed the lake atop a dam to a ridge on the other side of the lake. Here the trail pulled away from the lake and went deeper into the forest. Something scurried under the leaves next to me, running away as it heard me approach. A cloud passed in front of the sun and the woods became murky, full of shadows and secrets and things unknown. I shivered and hurried on, down now to the forest floor where a small stream spilled its way into the lake.

I climbed once again, this time to a cemetery overlooking the lake. Hundreds of gravestones dotted the hillside as far as I could see; silent reminders of what once was. This was a thriving community where people lived and worked and buried loved ones high on that hill. Each stone represented a story, a life that impacted the land in a small irreversible way.

I read an interview of a women who used to live in Loyston. She said the most difficult part of losing your town is not the loss of the physical buildings nor the economic implications; rather it’s the emotional impact that hurts the most. Generations of family members have lived and died here. Your babies are buried under cedar trees in cemeteries overlooking the town. There are memories at every corner and then, suddenly, you have to leave it behind. Leave the grandparents and the babies. You’re never really be able to return because nothing is the same. “People don’t even recognize that there was a Loyston.”

I continued on and soon came to Ghost House Loop which dove even deeper into the woods. The trail wound its way through a spongy valley floor, making numerous crossings over a creek that appeared to be trying its hardest to hurry out of the area. I soon came to the sight of Maston Hutchinson’s “ghost house”. The house, long gone now, was supposedly haunted and legend has it that his restless spirt still roams the area. I saw no restless ghosts, but did see a the remains of a spooky tree keeping a watchful eye over the spot where the house once stood.

Deep into the trail, I came upon another cemetery. I stopped and reflected on the lives that the stones represented. It occurred to me that by preserving this land and creating a park, that these people are seen and remembered more so than many others. People stop and read the names and dates on the stones. Wondering about what life was like, feeling sorrow for lives ended so young, and marveling at how old the dates on the stones are. A tiny glimpse into a world we never knew.

As I stood in the middle of the cemetery reading the names of those that had made this land their home, a light breeze began to blow through the trees causing two large branches high above me to rub together. The sound they made was surprisingly melodic. As though the forest was signing a lullaby to those buried here. Letting them know that, even though their town is gone, submerged forever in water’s depth, that they are not forgotten.

If you want to visit or learn more about Big Ridge State Park, you can find information on it here.

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